Documentary | Filmmaking | Interviews

That Tupper Feeling

1 Oct , 2003  

Written by Kevin McCarthy | Posted by:

Filmmaker Laurie Kahn-Leavitt’s new film 'Tupperware!' screening this month at the Northampton Independent Film Festival, humorously chronicles the history of Tupperware.

Brownie Wise called up Earl Tupper one day out of the blue to chew him out about the marketing of his Tupperware line of plastic bowls. The year was 1951 and Brownie Wise had never met Earl Tupper. However, she could tell that the way Tupperware was being marketed was all wrong. Any product with a "burping seal" needed a more personal sales touch, she reckoned. So Wise had one bit of sage advice for Earl Tupper: "Home parties."

The rest is not only Tupperware history; it is the start of an important chapter in the lives of women around the world who gained a sense of economic and social independence from these "modern dishes for modern living."

Local filmmaker Laurie Kahn-Leavitt captures this lost slice of American history in "Tupperware!" which humorously celebrates the culture of kitsch, clandestine entrepreneurship, the fun of archival film clips — and, most importantly, the lives of "extraordinary ordinary women."

Kahn-Leavitt first met Earl Tupper and Bonnie Wise while digging through the archives at the Smithsonian Institute. Researching an idea for a film about the cultural history of plastics, she stumbled upon the papers of the inventor of Tupperware and the woman who masterminded the product’s legendary and lucrative home party marketing campaign. Before Kahn-Leavitt could say "polyethylene pellets," she realized she had struck film gold in the story of the "bowls that burped," loaded as it was with rich personal accounts, photographs, and thousands of feet of archived film.

And as she explored the world of Tupperware more deeply, Kahn-Leavitt knew she had found something special in the exploits of Brownie Wise, the self-made marketing maven whose intuition helped to build the Tupperware Empire.

Featured in "Time" and "Life," the first woman to appear on the cover of "Business Week," and the woman behind the ubiquitous Tupperware Lady, Brownie Wise was a "phenomenon in her day," Kahn-Leavitt explains. "She was really good at convincing working class women who had very few options in life that they really could do things that they never dreamt they could do. These are women who basically were working as waitresses or behind the counter at a Five and Ten or in factories. And she offered them something they could do out of their houses. They could control their own hours, giving parties, and they could earn way more than they could doing anything else."

In "Tupperware!" Kahn-Leavitt picks up on a theme she explored in her earlier film, 1997’s "A Midwife’s Tale:" "If you look at history on television, most of it [features] presidents and wars and disasters. And there are all these great stories about women in the past that haven’t seen the light of day. They might have been in academic books, but they don’t reach the broad public."

Not only does the story of Brownie Wise reach the public in the film, but so do the stories of legions of former Tupperware Ladies (and some Gentleman) whose wonderful interviews — and accompanying montage of classic archival footage — breathlessly pace the hour-long film.

Kahn-Leavitt is quick to point out that a project the size and scope of "Tupperware!" requires more than just a team of one to pull off. Working with co-producer Robin Hessman, production assistants Julie Golia and Barbara Rotundo, cameraman Peter Stein, and sound recordist John Miller, the filmmaker poured through boxes and boxes of archival material and conducted some 300 interviews before working with Bill Anderson to edit the final piece.

"Tupperware!" has already received accolades throughout the country. The film plays later this month at the Northampton Independent Film Festival and at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It has screened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, as well as at the American Film Institute’s Silver Docs Festival and the Montreal Film Festival. The International Documentary Association has already nominated it for "Best Film in a Continuing Series" and "Best Use of Archival Materials." To top this off, "Tupperware!" will be broadcast on PBS’ the "American Experience" sometime early next year.

Busy these days promoting "Tupperware!" — not to mention juggling her various other roles as teacher, web publisher, and family woman — NewEnglandFilm reached Laurie Kahn-Leavitt at her Blueberry Hill Productions office one recent Saturday afternoon.

KM: You do a number of different things on top of filmmaking. So what would you say you do if someone were to ask you? Well, why don’t I ask you: "What do you do?"

Kahn-Leavitt: What do I do? Well, I’m an independent filmmaker. But to say that you’re an "independent filmmaker" means that you’re a fundraiser, a researcher, a writer, a director, a producer, and a publicity person at the end. I mean, you have to be a little bit of a jack-of-all-trades. And then I’ve also gotten involved with some teaching and some web work. But fundamentally, I am an independent filmmaker these days.

KM: The story of "Tupperware!" has a little bit of everything… When you started researching this story, did you feel like the more you dug into it that you’d really hit a filmmaking goldmine?

Kahn-Leavitt: Absolutely. There I am reading through the amazing plastics collection at the Smithsonian, and what jumped out at me — when I got to it — were the papers of Earl Tupper and the papers of Brownie Wise and a collection of early films [showing Tupperware’s annual Jubilee celebrations for its sales force]. The company made films every year of their Jubilees. And I just went, "Whoa, this is incredible!" You know, this is a film staring me in the face! And I didn’t even know then how good a story it was, because I didn’t really understand what Brownie’s role was in all of it. I didn’t know anything about the relationship between Earl and Brownie. I mean, I had a sense of it, but I didn’t really know what had happened.

And the deeper I got into it, the more complex and interesting the story was. I mean, it’s not one of those films where you start Day One and you can predict where your research is going to take you. My research took me in the most unexpected directions. It was great. It was really fun to work on.

KM: About the footage you stumbled upon, what else did you use to make the story come alive?

Kahn-Leavitt: [After looking through the material at the Smithsonian], I then went out and started interviewing people — and knew from the papers who the key characters were that I wanted to speak to. And then everybody you speak to says, "Oh you’ve got to speak to these 10 people." And then those 10 people say you’ve got to speak to these 10 people. So it expands out until you start hearing the same names and realize you have covered your bases. But we interviewed about 300 people. Relatives of Earl Tupper, relatives of Brownie Wise, people who were out in the field as Tupperware dealers and managers and distributors and people who were on staff as executives for the company in those early years. Everybody that we met or spoke to on the phone… we’d ask them, "Do you have old home movies? Do you have old photographs? And who do you know that does have that stuff?"

We just followed our noses and found amazing [material]… I now have a collection of every single Jubilee … the Smithsonian just has a couple of them… I also got permission, finally, to get into company headquarters and look at all of the footage that they have. It’s up in a dusty loft in boxes, but no one has time to look through them. But there are these cardboard boxes full of outtakes that got tossed in there about 40 or 50 years ago.

I also looked at lots of films from the period — what they call ephemeral films. You know, these 15-minute ads for foam that you’d never see now. Or films about what women should or shouldn’t do — you know, these high school behavior modification films that were so popular in the fifties. Old TV shows. We spread our net very widely and had lots and lots of footage to play with when we got into the editing room finally.

KM: There are a lot of layers to the "Tupperware!" story. How do you think the story will resonate with women today who might have a very different sensibility than women in the 1950s?

Kahn-Leavitt: Well, part of what makes the film work is that the people we interviewed are really funny, and really smart, and really likeable. So I think that people really relate to them even though they might be from different backgrounds and different eras than the people who were in the film.

People have said to me after [watching the film] that they’re left really thinking hard. You know, they laugh throughout the film, but then they’re left kind of mulling over what’s changed and what hasn’t changed in the last 50 years. And a lot has changed, but there’s also a lot of ways in which the experiences [of the women in the film] are not so different from women’s today.

The women [in the film] were very good at working inside the system of expectations of what women should and shouldn’t do. But yet were always subverting the system from inside. And I think that’s appealing to a modern audience — to see how really clever these women were.

You know, if their husbands said, "I don’t want my wife working." Then it’s like, "Honey, don’t worry. We’re just throwing parties." And they would just sort of work around whatever obstacles were in their way without necessarily considering themselves feminists. I mean they never would consider themselves feminists. They were just being practical.

KM: Judging from your enthusiasm for Brownie Wise, do you identify with your lead character? Is that a valid question?

Kahn-Leavitt: It’s certainly a valid question. I actually don’t know if I would like Brownie if I met her. I mean, I think she’s an amazing person. She’s very flawed actually — which makes her more interesting to me than someone you just idolize. But I think what is in common between "A Midwife’s Tale" and "Tupperware!" is that they are both about really interesting women whose stories have never been told. And, you know, they are complicated, wonderful stories. They are stories that I want to bring out to the public.

["Tupperware!"] is an amazing story of women’s lives that is sort of invisible when you look back into the past. And it’s just incredibly fun for me to have the raw materials to put it out there, to tell the story of this woman — once a huge phenomenon — who got erased by history.

Stories of really strong, complicated, sort of extraordinary ordinary women interest me a great deal.

KM: How is your role as "publicity person" for the film going?

Kahn-Leavitt: It’s going well… I think part of it is that there aren’t many documentaries that are funny and thought provoking at the same time. And so I think that people are drawn to [the film] for those reasons… I think people might be drawn to it for the kitsch factor, and then they realize that there is actually a really good story here. I think that appeals to them.

And I think that — in a world where a lot of news is just dreary and about what’s going on in Iraq — I think this is a breath of fresh air. So it’s partly the film and it’s partly the times that we’re living in. Fortunately that means that people are really paying attention, which is great.

KM: What future projects are you considering?

Kahn-Leavitt: Having done "A Midwife’s Tale" and "Tupperware!" I want to think through, map out, and research a whole group of films about extraordinary ordinary women of the past.

[Though "Midwife’s Tale" and "Tupperware!" are very different], they are films that say that women’s lives matter. There are great stories waiting to be told, stories that are sitting in archives all across the country.

My next project is to do 10 more films based on the lives of women in the past, the American past. I now have a list that is probably 200 ideas long. I’m a visiting scholar at Brandeis this year — and my task at the Women’s Studies Research Center is to basically whittle that list down. It’s still a growing list; [I need to] get into the archives and figure out which of these stories could really sustain the dramatic arc of a film and which ones have enough visual materials to really tell the story as a film.

That might get my list down to about 30 or 40. And then I will think about what it is I’m trying to say about women’s lives in the past. And then I will put together a collection of stories that cover different time periods, different regions, different class backgrounds, different ethnic backgrounds, and different kinds of work that people did. And determine what combination of stories implies what.

So it’s a really fun task… And, once I get my list, I’ve got to start writing proposals again and raising money.

Laurie Kahn-Leavitt is the director and producer of ‘Tupperware!’ which screens at the Northampton Independent Film Festival (www.northamptonfilmfestival.com) later this month and on the ‘American Experience’ on PBS in early 2004. Information about the filmmaker can be found at www.DoHistory.org as well as www.thetupperwarefilm.com.


Laurie Kahn-Leavitt is the director and producer of 'Tupperware!' which screens at the Northampton Independent Film Festival (www.northamptonfilmfestival.com) later this month and on the 'American Experience' on PBS in early 2004. Information about the filmmaker can be found at www.DoHistory.org as well as www.thetupperwarefilm.com.